Italian Immigrant Settlement was a Legacy of Pride

"We were like the Letters of the Alphabet. Alone, we had Little Meaning, but together we were part of a Great Meaning"

My grandfather was never a man of many words, but when he spoke we listened. Though his words were few they were filled with wisdom. He would often say to us: "Pray for the things you want, but work for the things you need". If grandpa said that phrase once, he said it a thousand times. Like many of his generation , who came to America during the great migration, grandpa was a man of deep faith, but he also realized that hard work would provide him and his family with the material things in life.

Italian American Family

His work in the fields, in the factories and in the orchards of the valley was honest and fulfilling because it came forma a place of pure and clear devotion. Looking back now to a century ago I can visualize in my mind's eye the finale of my grandparent's long journey to America and how they sailed aboard ships that took them months to reach New York's port of entry.

I can feel my ancestor's joy and their sense of fear and expectations as they made their arrival past the gates of Ellis Island, and how they worried for their siblings that were forced to return to Italy because they were rejected by the health inspectors for having a small limp or deformity.
Grandma would often tell me of these days, of her sadness and separations and of her great hope for a better life and how the excitement of their journey far outweighed their fears. Apprehensions may have been there, but it was not upper most in their thoughts.

Emergency Identification card for immigrants

The expectations of journeys end made them oblivious to the enormous challenges that awaited them. First, and foremost, they would have to gain acceptance in a New World, which practiced beliefs and cultures different from their own. But the whispered promise of streets paved in gold was too overwhelming to ignore.

They would gladly face the unknown to find this golden opportunity. Soon enough, the immigrants would learn that all they had heard of the bountiful New World was not all true. Though they would discover that the streets of America were not paved in gold, they did find what they were looking for in precious opportunity. They would survive.

They etched out a living for themselves and moved into a 12-block area of San Jose south of First Street. It was a perfect location for housing the hopeful young immigrants. Despite their language barrier and unskilled labor they were able to find employment. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work and soon another of America's "Little Italy's" was created. City dwellers would refer to the community of immigrants by a number of names, some colorful, some unflattering, but I believe 'little Italy" to be the most accurate. The area served as home to many newly arrived ethnic groups of different cultures and backgrounds, but it was the Italian community that prevailed.

By 1910 hundreds of Italian Americans called this 12-block area of San Jose home. By 1916 the population of San Jose's little Italy soured. Residents of the settlement were proud of their meager homes and gardens and the area bloomed with pride. There was an abundance of fruit tree, vegetables and flower gardens surrounding each plot of land. Trees, laden with prunes, cherries and apricots bore testimony to the community's' flourishing lifestyle. It was no wonder that the grapes grew so large and fruit to unusual size and quality, most of the young immigrants had been schooled early on in life by their parents and their parents before them on the grafting, planting and pruning of fruit bearing trees. By the time a child was 10 years of age he, or she, knew all there was to know about vegetable gardening and fruit trees. They had to, it meant survival in the old county and now in the New World as well.

In 1906, these very same Italian immigrants began work on the construction of a lavish church, one that would embody the spirit and age old beliefs of these tenacious immigrants. They wanted their church to represent century old traditions and community spirit; it would be built in the likeness of the great St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. It would be located on San Fernando Street and run by the Jesuit fathers. Originally, the church was built for persons of Italian decent only, but the church became a church for all the people. Though they had a meager income that didn't reflect the grandeur of the new church, the elaborate building was an important part of their cultural beliefs. Many years ago, I asked my grandfather why it was so important for his people to construct such a lavish place of worship.

Grandpa responded in his native Italian, translated into English it means something like this: "Out of our habits grow our character, on our character we build our destiny." The church had come to represent the young immigrant's cultural heritage and their hope for the future. Their honest work was their contribution to their community and to their future generations as well.

In time, San Jose's urban sprawl engulfed this cluster of Italian Americans and their living spaces. And, in 1969, bulldozers raised the magnificent Holy Family church to make way for the Guadeloupe expressway. Though another church was built on Pearl Avenue, the grandeur of the original church was gone forever. But, by then, the successful immigrants had moved on to better parts of town, opened businesses, started new careers and eventually assimilated into their extended community. Though San Jose's "Little Italy" is gone now. A sense of appreciation for these early immigrants and their spirited accomplishments remains an indelible part of our community's heritage and its lifestyle.

The many local families whose ancestors came to San Jose from the old country share a special bound of thanks to their parents and grandparents. They're grateful for the way they held tight to their Old World ways and rituals while at the same time embracing the new burgeoning lifestyle of the Santa Clara valley. I suspect there would be no "silicon valley" and perhaps no industry as we know it today without people such as my grandparents and their generation of industrious workers who planted and harvested orchards of fruit trees abundant vegetable fields and worked in the long cannery lines.

To this day, the imprint made by our immigrant ancestors anchors many of us to this beautiful valley while at the same time their lofty and inspiring dreams continue to give us our wings.

By Cookie Curci

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Wednesday, November 09TH, 2011 by Guest

Dear Cookie, 

You speak so eloquently about your heritage.  It is both reminiscent and healing for me to read your words.  All 4 of my grandparents came to this great country with the anticipation and promise that your very words so beautifully express.  The little communities developed in America that offered refuge and cultural continuity, except for a few famously preserved, are all nearly extinct.  

My grandparents, after spending a required transition through Ellis Island, immediately continued on to Los Angeles, where the Italian community was a thriving area until the Pasadena Fwy was built around the mid 30's requiring the Italian inhabitants to move in different directions.  My grandparents, wanting to remain as close to the Los Angeles remnants of their once original community, moved to Huntington Park, California.  I grew-up in the adjacent city of South Gate.  My parents, who were both born in Los Angeles, remained within a mile from both sets of grandparents and allowed me daily visits with all four grandparents until either their deaths or the eventual move that both my sister and I required through our respective marriages.

Los Angeles still has the St. Peter's  Italian Church on or near No. Broadway,  where my sister and I were baptized.  At 16, in 1970, my maternal grandparents, gave me the trip of lifetime, as I accompanied them to their one and only pilgrimage back to their native homeland in Bari, Italy.  I was able to stay there and tour this most beautiful city for nearly 2 months.

We spent most of our time with my grandmother's family, the ancient city of Altamura, one that is still thriving today.  Needless to say I was speaking Italian and the unique dialect from this magical city with my cousins who did not know a word of English.  When I left Italy, I cried and cried, vowing to return to this enchanting city some day again.

With only my sister and I, bonded through our immense love for one another, would  honor every holiday with the wealth of the Italian customs we acquired through our culturally rich heritage.  Financially, our grandfathers, as well as our own father, provided  middle class comfort for both my sister and I.  However, even though we witnessed the indefatigable work ethic ingrained from our ancestors, the dichotomy of the roles of men and women were not adjusting with the times and trends of our American way of life.

Being the first individual in my family, (not to mention the first female), taking advantage of the educational opportunities of our great nation, decided to go to college after graduating from high school.  This was just one of the dreams my italian ancestors envisioned for their children, not available to everyone from "the old county": an education.

I would not have followed this plan were it not for the caring insight of teachers and counselors who collectively helped me achieve scholarships and admittance into the University of Southern California.  Though, working by day for the Gas Company, my grandfather was a voice teacher by night, and not only instilled in me  a passion for music.  Even though he had the ability to have been a notable operatic tenor, with a family and trying to make a living as a singer during the Great Depression was not a viable option for him.  So being a dignified man of his means, provided for his family with a "sensible living" but continued to help others find their musical calling through singing.   

Being one of his students, and having been showcased in many italian events in my teens decided to major in music, more specifically, opera.  Being accepted at age 17 in USC's school of music, I was one of a handful of Opera Majors for a few years until the major was merged with the rest of the vocalists as a Vocal Arts Major.

I was doing remarkably well until disaster struck.  After, 27 years of marriage, my parents divorced.  This is one of many ways that the culture shocks that a heritage endures when trying to acclimate to a new country, with a different set of values, principles and morals.  Being in the midst of my college studies, even with scholarships and 2 part-time jobs, I could no longer support my way through full-time status.  My sister and I struggled in our own marriages trying to retain traditions from our family while conforming to a new set of rules and mindset marrying into different cultures.  Being trained to be good wives we followed our respective husbands to the cities where they had established careers and unfortunately created a bigger demographic divide between us.

My sister, who was the one person (aside from my two daughters) I was closest to than anyone else in the world, unfortunately died of breast Cancer at age 52 in 2002.  She had no children of her own and considered herself another mother to them.  Having lived through two long-term marriages that have ended, each producing two daughters that are the pride of my life.  Over thirty years, it was my calling to be first and foremost their mother, but always making sure to expose them as much as I could to the rich culture of half their heritage.

After decades of dissociation, one of my relatives from Altamura, through diligent research on his part, was able to find me.  We have developed a wonderful familial friendship, and in 2010, along with my two daughters, I was able to make another pilgrimage to the homeland of my grandparents.  Instead of feeling like I was visiting a foreign land, I actually felt as is if I had finally arrived home.

If it weren't for my daughters, I would seriously consider moving to Italy.  My father is still alive and lives close to me.  I raised my daughters to be strong independent and educated women.  During the time that I was a stay-at-home mother, I managed to go back to school and complete my Bachelors degree in Music with Vocal Emphasis.  My eldest daughter, a college grad, has recently married and lives about 30 miles away.  My youngest is still 17, but has already started college.  

One of the sad dilemmas I have encountered through my own experience as an American with a profound influence from a culturally rich Italian heritage, is the gradual dissipation of a once thriving community that weathered the storm through the hardships immigrating to a new land.  I am not aware of cultural preservation of the Italian heritage in Orange County, CA, where I have lived for the past 31 years.  

A century ago, 2 brothers in Altamura, Italy were at a crossroads in making lifelong decisions about how to provide for their struggling families.  Domenico Chiaromonte decided to stay in Italy and make the most of his life there, while Michele Chiaromonte, in defiance, ventured with millions of others in their exodus across a vast ocean in quest for the promise of a new beginning.  Michele left alone with the plan to work and raise enough money to send for his family.  On his way out from Altamura, he turned and faced the grandiose westward gate, one of 4 which still today encompasses the massive walls of this medieval city.  With arms crossed against his chest vowing to send for his wife and family, but defying to return to the city which he had convincingly decided had nothing to offer but a lifetime of poverty for him and his family.  

And so it came to be, he never returned.  But in the midst of creating his new life in America, reaping consistent monetary rewards for his hard labor, tragedy would play a part in his optimistic momentum.  His young wife, Giovanna Di Donna, had suddenly died at age 34, succumbing to the Spanish Flu ravaging Europe. With no father at hand, his children were in a sense orphaned and dependent upon relatives and the church for sustenance.  While I was in Altamura last year, indeed, it came to my revelation that the adequate monetary support he was sending was being diverted, by ill-intentioned relatives, leaving his children with hardships to endure.  This hastened Michele's attempts to bring his children to America.  Finally, Giuseppe and Santina Chiaromonte (my maternal grandmother) respectively, 17 and 13 years-old made the long voyage to Los Angeles via Ellis Island in 1921, eventually to be reunited with their father. Ironically, that same year 17 year-old Vincenzo Cimmarrusti (my maternal grandfather)  from Loseto di Bari made his voyage as well.  While settling in the LA Italian community, Vincenzo who had become friends with the young Giuseppe took a liking to the beautiful Santina, and although their respective families had already picked different suitors for the 2 lovebirds, following the romantic Americanized tradition of falling in love, and defeating the notion of an arranged marrriage,  the two were married in 1925.

Life was good, even during the Depression, when money was scarce, this strong community had their families within walking distance and the shared community watched over each other.  The saying "it takes a village" could have definitely applied.  Yes, they were in a new land, a different country, but because they were all Italians, they "understood" each others languages as well as the deep meaning and the shared values that they brought from Italy.  

My visit to Altamura, had me reflecting on the decisions of two brothers, making decisions that would forever change the course of their families.  And I wonder, although great-grandfather Michele attained a financial security that he most probably would have never achieved had he stayed in Altamura, are his descendants the better for it?

Monday, April 02TH, 2012 by Guest

cool story bro.